The West End Museum will premiere a new exhibit, “The Old Howard Theatre” on Tuesday, September 24 in celebration of Boston’s oldest playhouse, which once stood at the heart of Scollay Square.

A show reception will take place on Thursday, October 17 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. Concurrent programs—a film screening, an author talk, and an evening of burlesque music—complement the show, which runs through February 15, 2020.

Old Howard burlesque queen Ann Corio, 1946. Photo courtesy of Duane Lucia.

The Old Howard (officially, the Howard Athenaeum) enjoyed a heyday of opera, ballet, and serious drama performances through the late 1860s when its audience dwindled in favor of other local theaters. To claim new patrons, the theater ushered in an era of vaudeville starting in 1869. By the early 1900s, however, variety and burlesque had become the order of the day at the Howard, featuring such legendary performers as Gypsy Lee Rose, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, and Ann Corio. 

As the burlesque performances grew more risqué, denouncement by the Watch and Ward Society and vice raids by the Boston Police escalated. Indecency charges forced the theater to close in 1853.

Seven years later, the Howard National Theatre and Museum Committee formed with a mission to return the Old Howard to its more “legitimate” age. Before those efforts could get off the ground, the building suffered a small and suspicious fire. Already in the swing of urban renewal, the City swooped in and demolished the building.

Fire at the Old Howard, June 20, 1961. Courtesy of The West End Museum archives, Charles Frani Collection.

The Howard’s origin, glory days, and ultimate demise are recounted in the West End Museum Exhibit through photographs, artifacts, and graphic panels in the exhibit. The exhibit and reception are free; concurrent programs require admission for non-Museum members.

Learn more about the West End Museum on their website.

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